People in areas beset by wildfires should make plans to leave home quickly because gusty winds Friday could make wildfires bigger and more unpredictable, authorities warned Thursday.
A cold front forecast to move through the state Friday afternoon could have wind gusts up to 25 miles per hour or more at the same time humidity is low, according to the National Weather Service.
The wind could fan flames higher and sweep burning leaves across lines cleared to contain fires, setting new spots ablaze. It also could cause fires to shift direction quickly, making it more difficult to figure out where to build containment lines and increasing the danger to firefighters and nearby residents, officials said.
“Wind is definitely our enemy” in fighting wildfires, said Jennifer Turner, spokeswoman for the state Division of Forestry.
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The National Weather Service at Jackson issued a red flag warning about the fire risk from noon to 8 p.m. Friday in an area from Powell, Bath and Rowan counties through Pulaski and Laurel counties to several along the state’s southern border, as well as a separate alert for the southeast part of the state.
Tinder-dry conditions prevail across nearly all of Kentucky, making for the worst fall fire season in 15 years.
As of midday Thursday, 50 fires were burning on private, state or federal land, primarily in southeast Kentucky and areas near Morehead. Hundreds of state and federal employees and volunteers were working to contain fires, and Kentucky National Guard crews were using helicopters with 660-gallon containers to drop water on blazes.
Maj. Steve Martin said 50 Guard members and eight to nine helicopters have been involved in the effort, flying out of the airport at London. Crews had dropped 1.4 million gallons of water as of Thursday morning, he said.
Kentucky National Guard crews train for aerial firefighting, but hadn’t been called out to do it in the state in 15 years, Martin said.
Smoke, updrafts from fires and a bag of water that weighs about 5,000 pounds slung below the helicopters add to the complexity of the flights.
“This is not a casual mission,” Martin said.
There have been more than 260 fires in Kentucky since late October, scorching more than 44,000 acres, according to state agencies.
Kentucky Emergency Management issued a notice Thursday advising residents in areas affected by fires to pay close attention to conditions and be ready to evacuate if necessary.
Tips from the agency include organizing medications, identification and essential valuables, as well as a cellphone and change of clothing; making arrangements to transport pets and livestock; and planning evacuation routes.
If evacuation becomes a possibility, people should place items such as medications in their vehicle; park the vehicle facing outward and keep their keys close; and keep pets nearby.
Other tips include moving propane grills away from the house, attaching garden hoses to spigots so they’re ready to use and filling buckets of water to place around the house.
The American Red Cross has 11 shelters on alert if needed. Information about the shelters and preparedness tips are available on the Kentucky Emergency Management site.
State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles announced Thursday that his department and the Red Cross have asked schools in Eastern Kentucky to be ready to use commodity food provided by the federal government to feed people displaced by the fires if needed.
David McGill, emergency manager for Harlan County, which has had some of the largest fires the last three weeks, posted an advisory Thursday urging people to have a bag packed because of the potential for fires to increase in intensity Friday.
“That’s going to change the dynamics of the fires,” he said of the expected higher winds.
The county will use media outlets, social media and its warning system — which can target specific communities — to announce evacuations if necessary, McGill said.